Some comms rules of the road

I’ve been travelling around a bit recently which has inspired me to rewatch what is probably one of the best films ever made – Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Released before Christmas in 1987 it stars John Candy and the legendary Steve Martin (whose autobiography is also a fantastic read) trying desperately to get back to Chicago for thanksgiving, against the odds and all the various gods of public transport.

Despite being more than 30 years old it’s still hilarious and their various transport woes will definitely strike a chord with anyone who has to brave the vagaries of British train travel at any point.

I might just be unlucky but the delays, false starts, and cancellations mean that I often get to revive the role of a prematurely graying, urbane and impatient Neal Page as I struggle back on the seemingly impossible journey.

Watching it in between my most recent travels got me thinking about what lessons we can take from it as communications professionals:

  1. You can over communicate and under communicate. Much of the comedy in the film comes from Del Griffith over sharing and endlessly blithering on, which is contrasted by Neal Page who doesn’t want to engage or empathise at all. It’s very easy to fall into either trap but there’s a sweet spot that we should all aspire to hit.
  2. The best laid plans always go awry in a crisis which is why your strategy should be robust but also very flexible. No two situations are the same in crisis comms so you need your teams to be able to adapt.
  3. If something can go wrong it generally will, so always plan for the worst case scenario.
  4. How did we ever survive before mobile phones? Many of the films hilarious capers would have been resolved pretty quickly with smartphone. Good for comms, not so great for slapstick road movies.
  5. Like Neal we all need to realise that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously and always remember what’s really important in life.
  6. Getting angry and stressed is perfectly understandable but very rarely useful.

A final, alternative reading of the film is as a thriller rather than a comedy and that Del is a dangerous psychopath who, mentally destroyed by his past, is actually trying to kill himself and Neal as part of some crazed revenge-against-the-world death cult.

Maybe a modern reboot? OK Maybe not.

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